Archive for January 19th, 2009

I Must Study War …

Monday, January 19th, 2009

At the Speaker’s Cabinet Luncheon this afternoon, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi quoted John Adams.

I found this version of the quote on

I must study politics and war, that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, natural history and naval architecture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, tapestry, and porcelain.

What I heard, in that quote — in her timing, using it now — was that it’s not only okay that I wake up every morning and write fiction.

That’s been the plan, all along.

The Crown and the Coal

Monday, January 19th, 2009

Last night, on my way home from Aunt Ruth’s, I stopped off for a quick visit to my friends’, Rachel and Mike, in Chevy Chase.

Something Rachel said struck me: She’s totally on board with Obama; she gets why everybody is so excited, and she is too. But something about his arrogance — the notion that, with his resume, he believes he is qualified to be the most powerful person in the world — still bugs her.

We decided that anybody who not only wants this job but thinks they can do it would have to have a certain self-confidence that veered into hubris.

It’s true that sometimes when you see Obama, he has that look. Early in the campaign, as he was edging ahead of Hillary Clinton in delegate votes, I remember reading the stories about Obama’s “cockiness.” I remember thinking: Dude, you may be winning, but a lot of Democrats love Hillary; stay low, stay level, stay respectful in the lead.

Yet one of the things I like most about Obama is also his willingness to criticize himself; his recognition that he is fallible and capable of making mistakes. It was a tonic — such a contrast to Bush, who, famously, could not think of a single mistake from his first term; who seemed to think that his decisions were righteous because they were his. It was as if God was a right-wing Republican.

Think back to Obama’s race speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. His campaign was in serious trouble, besieged by questions about why he spent decades at Trinity Church, listening to the anti-American, anti-Israel, fire and brimstone sermons of Rev. Wright.

In explaining his association, and making his comment about race in America today, Obama said something that has stuck with me:

Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy — particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.

I’m reminded of the Torah portion that we read for last Shabbat — parsha Sh’mot — which tells the story of the birth of Moses, his rescue on the Nile, his upbringing in Pharaoh’s court, and his initial encounters with God. When God calls upon Moses to serve as an ambassador to the Israelites, Moses answers: “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (Exodus 4:10)

Our sages imagine a story: When Moses was an infant, sitting on Pharaoh’s lap, he reached up and took off Pharaoh’s crown. The Egyptian ruler feared this was a sign that Moses would one day try to replace him, so Pharaoh devised a test. He set before Moses a hot coal, and a crown, thinking that if baby Moses reached for the crown, he would be executed.

According to the legend: “Baby Moses was about to reach for the shiny crown when an angel redirected his hand away from it toward the coal. Burning his fingers, he put his hand in his mouth and injured his tongue, rendering him ‘slow of tongue’ ever after.”

My point is not to compare Obama to Moses.

“Perhaps,” the Midrash speculates, “the Torah is telling us that, whatever our limitations, God can use us to do great things.”

Part of the explanation, Obama was saying in his Philadelphia speech, is that I’m flawed. And I know it.

At 12:01 p.m. tomorrow, when Obama becomes our president, he’ll have to work ever harder to recognize, come to terms with, and transcend his own limitations.

If we’ve been paying any attention at all these last six months, we understand: We will, too.

Aunt Ruth’s Message for Obama

Monday, January 19th, 2009

Instead of going down to brave the crowds and see Bruce Springsteen and Bono on the Mall this afternoon, I got in my car and drove north, up Connecticut Aveune, to vist my Aunt Ruth in Silver Spring, MD.

She’s not my aunt, actually. She’s my great aunt — my father’s aunt — 98 years old, and still capable of smart, engaging conversations. She’s one of my father’s only living relatives from that generation, and all those years I lived in Washington, in my 20’s, I made it a point to get to know her.

It amazes me that she was my grandmother’s sister. My “grandmother” on that side, Lillian, died when my dad was three. But Ruth will tell me stories about Lillian, stories that make me think she really lived, once.

I pick Ruth up this afternoon at her apartment, where she lives with an aide, Virginia, who has become a friend, too, over the years. On this day, we drive out to the Olney Grille — one of Ruth’s favorite haunts. She orders Rockfish, no butter, no sauce, no nothing, and a side of fries.

I knew that she voted for Obama — this 98-year-old, four-foot-something Jewish woman with flaming orange-red hair. She was not exactly Obama’s most reliable demographic. So I ask her: Why?

“I like him because he’s black,” she says. “I like him because he’s handsome. I like him because he’s reached the top of the ladder in an adverse society.”

Also, she says: “I hated the Republican.”

Odama, Ruth says, at one point. Obada …

“Uh uh,” Virgina says. “Oh-bama.”

Virginia, a native of the Ivory Coast, offered that after the election, Ruth had confided in her — she never thought she’d live to see a black man elected president.

“America is great,” Aunt Ruth says.

Aunt Ruth, who grew up in the town of Grodno, Poland, not far from Krakow, in the shadow of what would later become Auschwitz. She lived there with her brother, Isaac, and her sisters Anne and Lillian, until she was 9. Her father imported lumber from Koenigsburg, Germany, and ran a small business.

Ruth still remembers the days in the Old Country. They were robbed. Her father and brother were incarcerated. She tells a story — I can see her struggle with the details — of the day a woman came up to her mother screaming “don’t ask questions, run, run, run.” Her mother immediately went down to a military yard, and found that her son and husband were about to be shot. She distracted the assailants; her brother managed to escape — he clambered to a nearby roof, and hid. Her husband escaped as well.

I ask Ruth: Why did they do these things to you? What was your crime?

Ruth is nearly incredulous. “Being a Jew!” she says.

She’s sitting across from me, dwarfed by the bench and table. She wears a white knitted cap, a red and blue striped shirt, and a pearl necklace with a low hanging, ornate green rose. The whole time we are in the restaurant, she never takes off her coat. On the TV at the bar behind her, the Philadelphia Eagles are mounting a furious comeback.

Her earliest memories of a U.S. president involve Calvin Coolidge, who served in the White House from 1923 to 1928. Of FDR, she says: “He was alright, until he didn’t let the Jews in.”

Make no mistake. Ruth is a tough critic. I onced asked her if she liked my short stories, which I’ve sent her over the years. She says, to be frank, that she prefers longer stories and larger print.

She can be equally tough on herself. “My thoughts about Obama are worthless, because we haven’t seen him yet in action,” she says. “It’s a new philosophy and a new day and there are a lot of new things to come.”

You’ve lived a long time, Aunt Ruth. What advice would you have for President Obama?

“Two things,” she says, without hesitating. “Help Israel. Work against anti-Semitism in this country.”

President-elect Obada, take note: You’ve got your work cut out for you if you want my Aunt Ruth’s support in 2012. Don’t take the 102-year-old red-headed Jewish women for granted.

“You’re the light of my life,” Aunt Ruth tells me, whenever she sees me.

She finishes the last french fry. Leaves one small bite of fish on her plate.

And I truly treasure her. I’d never come to Washington without seeing her. I don’t care who’s getting inaugurated.